ESSAY // The Williamson Technique and the Magnetic Actor

The Ten Minute Exercise

It is the actor’s job to be an acrobat of the human condition.  They must access the limits of themselves, consistently coming to a full emotional life.  It is the actors job to be expansive, unapologetic, and (this is what, perhaps, many actors with good training don’t like to address), they have to be beautiful to behold.  I realize the implications of that word, beautiful.  I don’t mean they have to attractive, but as they live through something, as they go on a journey before our eyes, they must make us want to watch them.  Hopefully they take our breath away.  Hopefully we find it, in some way, beautiful.  Even in its ugliness, we find it beautiful.  So, what is it that allows for this beauty?  In other words, what creates presence?

Release.  Release makes actors magnetic.  An actor who can inhabit her body in a released way, free of tension; who can effortlessly process her experiences into behavior; who’s behavior is free, open, and pure--That’s an actor I cannot stop watching.  It’s all about release.  All of my favorite actors have a mastery of physical release:  Frank Langella, Daniel Day Lewis, Robert Duvall, Christine Baranski, Cate Blanchett, Jack Nicholson. When we watch a performance (a good one), we experience empathy.  Of course this is not a new thought.  We live through what the actor is living through.  If the actor is living through tension, that is all we are going to experience.   If an actor is released, we feel comfortable, we let them in, we let go.  That “letting go” is necessary for any sort of audience experience.  We have to surrender. 

I teach movement to actors.  My job it to help artists access physical release in order to let the audience really see them, with their beating hearts exposed.  In my work, actors strive to dissolve extraneous physical clutter, anything added to manipulate their truthful experience.  When this takes place, the audience, the viewer, sees their truthful response.  And it is beautiful to watch because it is free of tension.  

The body of my work, the foundation of what I teach, is what is called the Williamson Technique.  The Williamson Technique, developed by Loyd Williamson, is a niche technique that I believe, in my deepest heart, has not yet received the notoriety it deserves.  Most often it is taught to actors in conjunction with the Meisner Technique.  This is not necessary, but an extraordinary pairing as the Meisner Technique places particular emotional demands on actors.  Williamson collaborated with, and was a student of, American Choreographer and dancer Anna Sokolow.  He was watching Sokolow’s dancers move freely, without tension, at the same time as he observed Meisner’s actors crippled physically by the size of their emotional lives.  Thus, the development of the Williamson Technique began: movement training for actors that is loosely based in modern dance and designed to help the actor access and inhabit a physical instrument that is open, released, vulnerable, expansive, responsive, and, I would say, beautifully magnetic.  

The technique has been through many evolutions and there is a relatively large community of teachers.  My personal mentors were Nathan Flower (Tisch School of the Arts, NYU) and Danielle Liccardo (Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University).  These two teachers, Mr. Flower in particular, have developed the technique and put a great deal of emphasis on concrete and technical elements, enforcing practicality of the technique (which, if taught irresponsibly, can seem elusive and spiritual rather than technical.  Or, as I like to call it, “woo-woo”).  My approach to Williamson, passed down to me by these mentors emphasizes these primary objectives:

  1. Free the actor’s instrument by accessing awareness and permission. Cultivate the student’s connection to his personal, ‘truthful‘ experience, and the permission to act on it expansively.   
  2. Enhance the actor’s sensual (of or relating to the five senses) relationship with the world, thereby creating a vivid connection with and sensitivity to impulses.  
  3. Bring that freedom and connection with one’s surroundings into ensemble collaboration and the creation of original physical performance.   

This third objective of bringing the released actor’s body into performance work is a contemporary addition to the technique.  It is one of the many ways I, and especially my colleague and mentor Nate Flower, have expanded upon and modified the technique.  

I’m not just a teacher.  I am also a choreographer, performing artist, and an actor myself.  The Williamson work transformed my body and is a part of my work, every day.  I am fascinated with our psycho-emotional response to explicitly physiological impulse or stimuli.  That is what I have been exploring in my time at the Black Studio at LEIMAY, in my teaching, in my choreography, in my acting, and in my life.  I work with a variety of artists from different backgrounds and training.  Dancers, performers, artists, anyone who is “movement inclined.”  But, in my favorite performers to work with, there is a general theme:  clarity, openness, and a willingness to dance with one’s feelings...a willingness to swing from extremes, and ability to access a wide range of behavior.  And still be released.  This is the Williamson trained actor at her best.

I have been working with the Williamson technique for eight years.  I am so far from mastery, as I become more and more aware that mastery, for me, means an integration of theory and practice.  I am, just now, understanding what I believe the artists body should be, or rather what I regard as the necessary condition of the artists body:  open. simple. in a perpetual state of potential.  vast.  supple.  expansive.  released.  specific.  

In the last few years I realize the magnitude of this demand.  Because, like most human beings, for all the years I have spent on this planet I have been building an internal army against this artistic state of being.  This army is made up of habits, a sense of propriety, social influences and social rules, our cultural need to cultivate personality and identity.  These are all examples of common interferences in the process of release. 

These articles written in my time at LEIMAY will be an investigation of each of the levels of the Williamson Technique.  I will also highlight the liberties I have taken with it as of late.  Because I am a performing artist and choreographer, I find myself striving to concretize the bridge between the Williamson release work and the generation of original material and choreographic work.  I hope through these articles, I may better articulate this connection.  This technique has given me the gift of a dialogue with my body.  It has shown me the path to becoming a magnetic performer.  

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